The thoughtful subjects, complex characters and rich social background of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s compassionate novels about the day-to-day struggles of Jewish emigres starting new lives in postwar New York lend themselves generously to helmer Loretta Greco’s “Meshugah,” with its pro perfs and polished stagecraft. But the trick in adapting such expansive literary material to the confines of the stage is finding the right dramatic focus — and Emily Mann’s fixation on the sexual dynamics of a friendship-defying love triangle might not be exactly what the philosophical Singer had in mind.
At the end of this emotionally charged tale, one of the two lovers left standing rejects the prospect of ever having children with these words: “What we know should not be passed down. We must be like mules. The last of a generation.” That’s the heartbreaking message that Singer intended to convey about the European Jews who huddled at the edges of American society in 1952: the notion that Holocaust survivors are a unique species of humanity whose wartime suffering and subsequent behavior can never be understood outside their own circle.
It’s too bad that Mann takes so long to get to the point, because it would have given Singer’s characters a chance to reveal more of themselves than the cut of their underwear. Although, truth to tell, the dowdy undershirts and silky camisoles, along with the period outerwear assembled by Valerie Marcus, contribute to the story by riveting events to their postwar time frame. The warm, saturated tones of James Vermeulen’s lighting enhance this sense of time caught in motion, a painterly effect that doesn’t carry over to Michael Brown’s overly sparse settings of occasional rugs and scattered furniture pieces — handsome, but unspecific.
While the ungrounded settings may not reflect the detail of Singer’s characterizations, they do suggest the spiritual rootlessness of the central players: Aaron Greidinger (Ned Eisenberg), a renowned novelist and respected man of letters who also writes the advice column in the Jewish Daily Forward; Max Aberdam (Ben Hammer), an elderly investment broker who does mysterious things with other people’s money; and Max’s vital young mistress, Miriam Zalkind (Elizabeth Marvel), who becomes the linchpin in an extraordinary menage a trois with Aaron and Max. More than an insatiable sexual partner, Miriam is an indomitable life force, and Marvel plays her with earthy gusto tempered with tenderness.
When the truth comes out about what Miriam had to do to escape the death camps, Aaron is so appalled that he closes his mind, as well as his heart, to the lessons in human survival that Max and Miriam are determined to pass on to him. Eisenberg sensitively conveys the anguish of the intellectual Aaron as he struggles to revise his working definition of civilized human behavior, while Hammer exercises an old trouper’s skills to communicate the experiential wisdom of the worldly Max.
Neither one of them seems at all comfortable, however, getting it on with Miriam — and there’s a reason for that. Although Singer’s characters are motivated by their physical appetites, they are primarily thinkers and talkers who need to expound on the meaning of their acts and how they relate to their tight little community of exiles. Mann’s text, with its narrow focus on the sexual nature of the menage, and Greco’s staging, which is skewed to this physicality, conspire to stifle the characters’ intellectual need to understand who they were in the old world and what they have become in this not-always-brave new world.